I sometimes have very vivid and detailed but thoroughly crazy dreams; I wake up and think: “What on earth?” and worry for a minute that there’s something wrong with me, then go about my day and forget about it. Now I know that Manmohan Desai had those kinds of dreams too, except that in the case of at least one of them, he woke up and thought: “That should be a movie!” And so he made Mard.
It’s a trip through a demented sort of Disneyland, populated with characters from about a hundred different movie genres and policed by animals who are smarter than all the people around them combined. If you surrender yourself to the journey (and the film demands that you do) there’s a kind of lyricism and rhythm about it that’s hypnotic: it’s impossible to look away, but there’s an emotional detachment about it as well. You are just a spectator—so no worries!—but kya baat hai.
There is a thin but steely thread of a plot which binds the spectacle together. This thread concerns itself mainly with Desai’s usual subjects: a family torn apart at the hands of evil (evil in this case being the cruel and greedy representatives of the British Raj) and redemption sought by the weak against the powerful. It’s overwhelmingly embellished with a strange jumbled hodgepodge of cultural and historical references and flat-out lunacy.
What makes me love the film is that the plot somehow manages to keep on its feet long enough—albeit staggering under its burden—to achieve resolution at the end. So: epic fairytale-like story + jaw-dropping craziness = one-of-a-kind cracktastic entertainment. It isn’t subtle, but subtle can be overrated.
The British and their henchmen are gleefully and joyfully evil, reminding me somewhat of Mr. India’s Mogambo.
The main obstacle to their enthusiastic work is King Azad Singh (Dara Singh) (love him!), whose wife Durga (Nirupa Roy) has just given birth to a son. Azad Singh is the proud ruler of the area, who dislikes the occupiers of his country and especially loathes their pillaging of his heritage.
He is betrayed by an Anglo-Indian, Dr. Harry (Prem Chopra), and arrested by the British; he is saved from a gruesome end by a sprite from the Edwardian age named Lady Helena (Helena), who commutes his death sentence to life in prison.
Durga barely manages to escape with the newborn Prince (although not before Azad Singh carves the word “Mard” into his little infant chest), but in fleeing from her pursuers loses their son (he is rescued by the horse Bahadur) and her voice. Traitorous Dr. Harry is rewarded with the mayorship of Azad’s former kingdom, and his palace.
Years pass, and Azad’s son is brought up by a poor baker (Satyendra Kapoor) and his wife (Seema Deo). He grows up to be Raju (Amitabh Bachchan), a tongawala, and his closest companions are the unbelievably intelligent and empathetic horse Badal and dog Moti.
One of my favorite things about Desai’s films are that he “gets” that animals have more to offer than we generally recognize. This is not portrayed realistically (hello! it’s Manmohan Desai!) but at least it’s there. For instance, Azad Singh’s horse Bahadur attempts to save him from Dr. Harry’s treachery, but his actions are misunderstood by all—including Azad—and he fails, although we are treated to the sight of Dara Singh wrestling with a hilariously fake pair of equine front legs.
I digress. The now Mayor Harry has a daughter Ruby (Amrita Singh; her name is subtitled as Zubbie too occasionally) who is spoiled, wayward and selfish. Driving recklessly one day, she hits Durga (who is now a mute old beggar woman) and drags her some distance before she is stopped by Raju.
Again, the horse Badal seems to know that Durga is Raju’s real mother, and he pulls them to the orphanage where Raju was rescued from British capture by Bahadur years before. Badal is possibly Bahadur’s offspring? or perhaps Bahadur himself with a different name—I imagine that Manmohan Desai would have no trouble at all with dispensing of the natural aging process of a horse.
Mayor Harry’s henchman are the strangely dressed (usually as Sherlock Holmes) Goga (Goga Kapoor), the perpetually sunburned Simon (Bob Christo) and the topi-sporting General Dyer (Kamal Kapoor), whose name is an unsubtle reference to the instigator of Amritsar’s Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre. They are as despicable as despicable gets, caricatures of imperialist tyranny. Their actions provide plenty of rescue opportunities for Raju, Badal and Moti; it’s a veritable incoming and outgoing tide of cruelty, revenge and insult.
Amidst all of this, Ruby falls in love with Raju (the ppcc has dwelt upon their strange sado-masochistic chemistry, so I don’t have to).
I love that the subtitler can’t spell Ruby/Zubbie’s name consistently, but uses words like nascent.
Anyway, this budding romance makes her father very unhappy. Since he can’t arrest Raju (the Edwardian Helena at work again), he tries—and fails—to bribe him.
Raju follows this confrontation with a stinging song about Mayor Harry and company, and their yoke of oppression: “Buri Nazar Wale.” He hangs and then burns them in effigy.
To make matters worse, Ruby too has turned against her father and his cronies, and calls them traitors.
To get Ruby away from Raju and his influence, Harry ships her off forcibly to marry Dyer’s son Danny (Dan Dhanoa).
Danny is no nicer than his father (he may, in fact, be worse). He fancies himself a cowboy, and runs some sort of hard labor prison camp with slaves supplied from India’s bastis by Dyer. Given his penchant for working them to death, draining their blood (to send to the Empire’s soldiers in Burma) or forcing them into his quicksand bog of death, he’s in constant need of replacements. One such raid nets Durga!
One of the best things about the camp is its whip-wielding guards dressed in red-caped Mephistopheles outfits. Also: the genie-like overseer called Melton (at least by BollyBob):
Another great thing: Azad Singh is here too! He’s been powering a huge grindstone all by himself for 25 years, providing the other prisoners with the only grain they ever get to eat.
Oh boy! Now all we need is Raju to come and rescue everyone, reunite his mother and father, and figure out that he’s their son. Will he?
And how!!! One of my very few quibbles with Manmohan Desai is that his marvelously set up situations are often resolved in a hurry, which makes me feel very let down. This is not the case with this film. It’s as satisfying as you could want it to be, and as completely and majestically loony as the rest of it. This is not a film for the faint of heart or those who seek a measure of realism. It’s a cartoon, but what an epic cartoon it is!